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Cisco Debuts Application Oriented Networking Technologies

Cisco announced the first products to support its Application Oriented Networking or AON initiative this week at the company’s Networkers 2005 conference in Las Vegas. Due out the chute later this year are AON modules – blades – to fit into data center switches and branch office routers.

Executives of San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco say that AON, as the initiative is called, enables smarter interactions between networking hardware and the applications messages that travel over the network.

“AON is based on innovative new technology that moves beyond the packet level to read application-to-application messages flowing within the network - such as purchase orders, investment transactions, or shipment approvals,” the company said in a prepared statement.

In short, Cisco is going into the business of providing intelligent routing, security, transaction processing monitoring, and other application-level functions based on examining XML documents as they traverse the network.

“Application-Oriented Networking is the ability of the network to understand and, if necessary, act on messages as they are in transit,” said Taf Anthias, vice president and general manager of Cisco's new AON business unit, in a statement. “By speaking their language, the network can provide more value, making the dialogue between the applications more secure, more optimized and more flexible.”

For instance, an AON-enabled router could “look” inside the packets representing an application-to-application message and determine that it’s a work order and make sure it reached its destination application and got processed. It could also recognize that one message needed a higher level of security than another and provide that function.

“These rules guiding the actions of the router can be created using graphical tools we have developed for our customers, [and we’ll] provide an extensive array of services to help customers develop and deploy new AON products,” Anthias said.

Cisco has also signed up a slew of both large and small partners, including IBM, SAP, Tibco and Verisign, to collaborate on AON projects of various types. “When computers are repetitively performing specialized tasks, such as message routing of XML traffic, it makes sense to use custom silicon to provide a different level of scalability, just as we've done with packet-level processing,” Anthias added.

But whereas some observers would say that its intention is to grab a chunk of the middleware market, Cisco might say it is merely implementing more network intelligence higher up the protocol stack. It’s logical, the company says, to improve the network’s intelligence to the point that it becomes an active part of the application infrastructure of the enterprise.

Indeed, selling the concept of “middleware” was for years a dicey proposition. It was a hard concept to explain – that distributed applications need to communicate via software that glues them together so that they can exchange information and even trigger other actions across the network. Initially, it was a very proprietary approach that was jealously guarded by its purveyors. The result was high acquisition and maintenance costs and vendor lock in.

XML was supposed to cure all that. But it replaced the arcaneness of proprietary custom communications middleware with the complexity of processing hundreds of dialects of XML. Because it is what’s called a “verbose” programming language, XML consequently has been highly compute intensive in its use of processors, memory and network bandwidth.

Now, Cisco’s AON technology initiative aims to simplify and streamline all that, the company says. Psychologically at least, it will encase the software that does the data processing and transformation in something more tangible and intuitive – a piece of specialized routing or switching hardware. Cisco is also betting – no doubt safely -- on Moore’s Law to continue to make performance issues, such as XML’s verboseness, moot.

This comes at a time when Cisco, by some accounts, is approaching a potentially critical period in its history. The majority of its revenue still comes from selling high-end switches and routers -- products with a healthy profit margin -- a market that is expected to spike up in the near-term as more customers implement newer capabilities such as voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and much higher transmission bandwidths like 10-gigabit Ethernet.

But even though that business is projected to escalate in coming years as faster networking technologies, 64-bit processors and mammoth amounts of memory become commonplace, observers say fierce competition, especially aggressive price slashing by other major networking hardware players, could threaten Cisco’s traditional revenue streams.

Cisco executives’ intent is for AON to become a vehicle by which the company can reassert its hold on the switching and routing markets by becoming an essential part of those emerging distributed XML-driven applications.

About the Author

Stuart J. Johnston has covered technology, especially Microsoft, since February 1988 for InfoWorld, Computerworld, Information Week, and PC World, as well as for Enterprise Developer, XML & Web Services, and .NET magazines.

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